I have been researching my family's history for over 20 years, as well as occasionally assisting others in their ancestry research.
Answering the Question
A very common question for anyone with deep family roots in America is this one: "Do I have any ancestors who participated in the Civil War?" Sometimes the answer is simple: someone in your family may have thoroughly researched the family history and can give you detailed information on who did take part, and for which side and state each person served. On the other hand, perhaps you are the first person in your family who has paused to ask this question or taken an interest in your family's history. If you are completely new to this fascinating hobby, please see my article "Using the Internet to Find Your Ancestors" first to learn the basics of genealogy research. If you have already started researching your family tree, however, and know that you had ancestors living in the United States during the time of the Civil War, then read on for some tips for uncovering your family's Civil War history.
Organize What You Know
The first thing you need to do is write down the name of each of your male ancestors who were no older than about 50 in 1861 and no younger than 14 or 15 by 1865 (I say 14 or 15 because there was plenty of lying about ages going on at the time). This list can actually contain more names than you might expect due to all of the branching out that occurs by going that many generations back in time. Do not rule out both a father and son serving if the ages are right. If you know what state and county each person was living in at the time, write that down also. This information in particular will be quite helpful. Write down any other information you may have been told about each individual. Even unconfirmed family tales about great-great-great grandpa being a Union spy could be true. Hold those details lightly, however, because they could lead you off in the wrong direction if they are not true. Also, make a list of the names of adult female family members who lived during that time. There were women who were involved in some aspects of the conflict, and you might find that an ancestress of yours was one of those women.
Places to Search for Information
I cannot convey how useful keyword-searchable records on a website that specializes in genealogical and historical records can be. They will save you hours of effort as you begin combing through muster rolls and other military records. If you have not already subscribed to one of these websites and are serious about your research, please do, even if it is only for a month at first. Also, keep an eye out for free access to certain records collections on these websites. You may be able to find what you need in a day or two and can skip subscribing altogether (though I will say it is more likely it will whet your appetite to do even more research).
To search free records that have been posted online, try the links at the bottom of this page. Some of them are searchable by name or keyword. Others sites have the information posted in PDF format, so you will have to utilize the "find" function on your web browser if you want to find what you are looking for quickly. This is particularly true of genealogy websites that post portions of old family and local history books. These books can be a great source of detailed information once you have confirmed that a certain ancestor participated in the war. I have found some interesting tidbits in late 19th-century history books that have helped me gain a better perspective on my ancestors' experiences during the war.
The Next Steps
Once you have your list assembled, start with the person on whom you have the most information. Leaving the hardest people to research until last will keep you from becoming discouraged, as well as give you a chance to become more savvy in searching for records. Begin by looking at where this person lived at the time the war started. If the person was from New Hampshire, one may guess that if he participated, he fought for the Union. The same could be said of someone from Georgia; one may consider it most likely that he fought for the Confederacy. Unfortunately, there are many cases that will buck your assumptions, especially among those who lived in the border states. For example, I have many ancestors from Tennessee, some of whom fought for the North, and some of whom fought for the South. So, for those of you with border state ancestors, I would advise not to assume one way or the other, but rather look at the records for both sides. You may be surprised by what you find!
One issue you will encounter is being able to identify the correct soldier in the records. Sometimes you will find several different men with the same name fighting for the same state. In such a situation, it is most critical that you have detailed records to examine. Fold3.com has the best set of records if you need details. They have actual images of Civil War records from NARA (the National Archives) rather than just summaries of soldiers' service or random muster rolls. These records from NARA will often list details such as where the person was from, his age, civilian occupation, and physical appearance.
The listing of where a soldier was from and his age are the most helpful pieces of information when trying to determine which man is your ancestor. For example, say your ancestor's name is David Jones, and he was 27 and living in Virginia at the start of the war. An initial search of Virginia records might show that there were four David Jones from Virginia that fought for the Confederacy. Your next step would be to find records that tell you from what county each of these men came. Say one came from Grayson county, another from Brunswick, and the last two from Rappahannock county. If your David came from Grayson and the age matches, I would say you may have your man. If your David was from Rappahannock, examine the ages. If the records say both enlisted in 1861, and one was 19 and the other 27, you may easily separate the older individual out as possibly being your ancestor.
Details to Consider
Now that I have made this process seem relatively simple, I will throw in a couple of factors you will have consider before you can say absolutely that a soldier's record you found belongs to your ancestor. These factors tend to apply mainly when your ancestor has a more common name. If your ancestor's name was Jedidiah Payton Hinklemeyer, you probably won't need to know much more than his name and where he lived.
The first thing to realize is that searching for your ancestor by first and last name only does not always work. Say our David Jones' middle name was Lewis, and he frequently went by David L. Jones or D.L. Jones, or even occasionally D. Lewis Jones, so as to differentiate himself from the other David Jones living in the next town. Suddenly you may have several other possibilities for a name for which you will need to search. Also know that sometimes a person's initials could become transposed by those who kept the records. David Lewis Jones may have normally gone by Lewis, and at some point someone could have made an error and wrote his name as Lewis D. Jones rather than the proper form, D. Lewis Jones. Same person, just an error in record-keeping. So, look at other records that you have pertaining to your ancestor, such as census records, to see if he was in the habit of giving his middle name/initial when stating his name. This may seem like a lot to consider and rather confusing, but it is better to think about these things first instead of going down the wrong track and wasting your time.
The other factor to keep in mind is that your ancestor may have served in a regiment in a neighboring state. This was true for me; I had one ancestor I was beginning to believe did not serve at all, even though he was the right age at the time. Once I decided to put aside my assumption that he had to have fought in a Mississippi regiment and did a more general search using just his name, I found his records. It turned out that my ancestor, who lived near the Mississippi—Arkansas border, had joined a regiment from Arkansas when they came through his area searching for new recruits. If you cannot seem to find your ancestor in his home state and he lived in an area bordering another state, it does not hurt to check the neighboring state's records
An important side note that I must make is the fact that some people did not fight in the war. This could be for several reasons, one of the biggest ones being religious objection to war in general. If you have ancestors that were Quakers or Mennonites, they may not have participated in the fighting. So if you cannot find records of service for a particular person, it may be because he simply did not fight at all.
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Confirming Your Information
It is always best to confirm your discoveries by looking for other records that relate, either directly or indirectly, to your ancestor's potential service in the Union or Confederate army or navy. While it is true the information in the Civil War records themselves may provide conclusive evidence, at others times they may not do so. If the records from the war itself do not give you the confirmation you need, you can employ the tactics listed below.
The first thing I would do is search for Civil War pension records. These records may give a widow's name that can tell you that, say, a man who served in the artillery is your ancestor, and not the man of the same name who served in the infantry. This only works if you know the name of your ancestor's wife, however! If you do not know, you will need to go back and find census records, marriage records, or some other reliable source that can give you the spouse's name. The other thing to look at on a pension record is the state where the pension application was filed. If you know your ancestor moved to Texas right after the war and stayed there, the application would have been filed in Texas. This detail would help you even if the record does not contain a widow's name. Unfortunately, not everyone will have a pension file, as some did not apply for one or died before the pensions were made available to them.
A second source that lists veterans of the Civil War is the 1890 Veteran's census. This census will include the veteran's name (or widow's name), regiment served, and current residence in 1890.
Another way to confirm service is to see if you can find the headstone of the person in question. Many men from the era who survived the war had the name of their company and regiment listed on their gravestone.
Painting a Bigger Picture
Having confirmed the side, branch, and regiment in which your ancestor served, you can now begin to look at other details to get a better picture of what his experience was like. Military records can tell you whether he was wounded, taken prisoner, or killed in action (yes, it is possible for you to be here yet have an ancestor that died in the war—many of the men who served had children at home). Regimental records tell the story of where the regiment was deployed and in what battles it participated. Do not assume, however, that just because a regiment participated in a particular battle that your ancestor was there. Company muster rolls cover two month periods, and they do not mean that an individual was actually present every single day of those two months. Your ancestor could have been sick at a hospital or on special duty somewhere away from the fighting. The only way you can know for sure someone was at a battle is to find a record that states such a fact. If you find a record that says your ancestor was wounded on the day and in the place where a battle was fought, you could definitely say he was there.
Finding a Civil War ancestor can give you a greater sense of connection to this time in American history and an appreciation for the struggles your forbears endured. Have fun searching!
Links to Help You Begin Your Research
- The USGenWeb Project
Free records made available by volunteers. Pages exist for all states; however, not all counties have information available.
- RootsWeb.com Home Page
Free records available. Message boards are useful for connecting with other researchers.
- Soldiers and Sailors Database - The Civil War (U.S. National Park Service)
National Park Service website. Free records. Gives general histories for many of the regiments from the Union and Confederacy.
- Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records
Free. Good resource since many of the cemetery records also include images of the headstones.
Records are available for free, but you must sign up for an account to access most of them.
Most records can be accessed by subscription only. Good searchable database with a large number of records (images of C.W. pension records on this site).
- Fold3 - Historical military records
Most records can be accessed by subscription only. Good resource for individual Civil War service records.
Rhosynwen (author) on April 30, 2012:
Thank-you. I agree, the internet is both a good and bad source when it comes to genealogy. Any information come across that does not have documentation to back it up, I try to verify myself before receiving it as fact.
Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on April 29, 2012:
What a well-written article! Although I do have the CW records of a gr-gf and his brother (who both lied about their ages to enlist in IL), I know for certain their father NEVER served. The problem is several highly-respected and supposedly-thorough genealogists have published that he DID serve, and I've spent 30+ years trying to correct this error wherever I find it. Had just about succeeded when the internet genealogy sites and message boards became popular and the lie about his "service" grew legs again.
So if you're a newbie to genealogy, NEVER EVER believe anything you find on the internet unless the poster can provide documentation to back the claim.
Voted up and awesome! ;D
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 26, 2011:
Oh, I had never thought to ask this about my ancestors... and now I'm rather afraid to find the answer! I'm intrigued nonetheless. Great Hub- and cool photos, too!